New High Way to Dolpo

... is not good news for trekkers

Here in Dho Valley, in the arid mountains of northwestern Nepal, the only sounds used to be tinkling yak bells and the flapping of wind on prayer flags. Now, there is another one: the throb of internal combustion engines.

Chinese motorcycles roar down the dusty trails of once quiet Dho, and the growl of an excavator can be heard from across the valley. It will not be long before the Sumo pickups arrive from the district headquarter in Dunai, which itself was recently connected to Nepal’s road network.

During his state visit to Nepal last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Nepal would go from being landlocked to‘land-linked’, and promised to help build better road access across the Himalaya from Nepal to China. This is what ‘better connectivity’ looks like here at ground zero in Dolpo.

One of Nepal’s priorities for trans-Himalayan connectivity is the Kali Gandaki Corridor from the Tarai, through Mustang to the Korala checkpoint at the Chinese border. The new road from Marim Pass on the Tibet border to Dunai has now reached Dho and Chharkha.

On parts of the road that are already motorable, motorbikes  noisly overtake trekking groups spewing clouds of dust as they climb the trails. Neither the trekkers nor lodge owners are happy.

“They go so fast, they are noisy and irritating. It is dangerous for school children and older people — it will kill someone one day,” grumbles Tenzin Gurung, a monk at the Sitcho gomba.

Across the road however, a younger trader is excited about the road since it will provide easier access to the market and bring down the cost of food.

Such ambivalence has accompanied Nepal’s rapid road-building spree in other parts of the country like Tsum, Manang and Mustang. But perhaps nowhere has the change from no-road to road been as dramatic as here in Dolpo, which was the last district in Nepal  not linked by road.

Over on the other side of Mo La pass, at 5,021m, an excavator is clearing a switchback down the rocky slope that follows the trekking trail, which itself followed the ancient trading route from Dolpo to Mustang.

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“The weather is challenging, it is windy and cold on the pass, and we have to bring the diesel up by mule from Mustang,” says excavator operator Padam Bahadur.

Those who own lodges and depend on trekking groups for income are opposed to the road. Even if it is built, they say it should not destroy the traditional trading routes and trekking trails.

Says Sonam Lama, an architect who fought a losing battle to prevent the road to his native Tsum Valley: “These hiking trails should not be replaced by roads. We should try to find an alternative motorable road.”

The dozers are also ploughing across holy chorten and mani walls. The excavator driver, who is from Piuthan, says he had to “relocate” a mani wall because it was obstructing the road alignment determined by the surveyor.

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Villagers in Chharkha ask why Dolpo should not follow the example of Kagbeni, where the road to Lo Manthang bypassed the old cobble-stone streets of the town to preserve its heritage. Indeed, Dolpo seems to be making the same mistake as other parts of Nepal.

With little oversight by local or national governments, it looks like change is too big and too quick for Dolpo to handle.

“There is no reason why the road had to follow the trekking trails, go through the villages and destroy our holy shrines,” says Ramprasad Sherchan, owner of the Muktinath Hotel in Kagbeni. However, Sherchan now sees potential for more trekkers going to Dolpo via Mustang since the district will be more accessible.